Guess Who Tried to Prevent the VA Crisis — and Who Stood in Their Way!

The Three Trillion Dollar War

Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz predicted the VA scandal.

Back in 2008, the eminent researchers — one a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, the other a Nobel laureate in economics — published a book called The Three Trillion Dollar War, where they argued that most Americans were drastically underestimating the cost of the Iraq War. They didn’t specifically describe the events that have unfolded in recent weeks, but they did point out the enormous burden that would be placed on the VA system as veterans returned from Iraq — a burden that we were not preparing for.

And that was before the surge in Afghanistan.

Upon taking the oath of office, Barack Obama tripled U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, sending over 60,000 troops into combat. Only now, five years later, have troop levels reverted to the level they were at when he took office. So you can add 60,000 troops for five years on top of the costs projected by Bilmes and Stiglitz — projections that were verified and replicated by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, as well as Nobel laureate Lawrence Klein, the father of modern economic forecasting.

And yet, Congress refused to boost the VA budget.

For years, discretionary funding for the VA health care system had been growing at approximately 6 percent per year, slightly less than health care costs for the average American family, making it the most cost-efficient system in the country. Meanwhile, it ranked at the top of quality rankings, better than all its private competitors, year after year. It was the best medical care system in America.

That is, until the troops came home.

“Republicans beat back a Democratic attempt to provide almost $2 billion in additional health care funding for veterans,” reported the Washington Post in 2005, “rejecting claims that Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals are in crisis.”

The following year, Bilmes told ABC News, “In 2004, the VA had a backlog of 400,000 cases. Last year it was 500,000 cases. Now the backlog is 600,000 cases. That’s just in two years. And the big wave of returning Iraqi veterans has not even hit yet.”

And yet, the VA budget kept growing by 6 percent per year, as if the war didn’t exist at all.

As if that wasn’t a big enough problem… “Proposed cuts in Department of Veterans Affairs spending on major construction and non-recurring maintenance threaten to derail efforts to update the department’s aging infrastructure,” reported the Washington Post in 2012. And so, Democratic Senator Patty Murray led the charge to boost the VA’s construction funding, only to have it beat down by Republicans.

Later that year, Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee, released the party’s annual budget proposal. Had it become law, the VA would’ve sustained billions of dollars in budget cuts, forcing smaller facilities to shut down in rural areas.

So it wasn’t surprising to Senator Murray when allegations surfaced of VA hospitals lying about the number of veterans on their waiting lists because they didn’t want the world to know that they were unable to give their patients lifesaving treatments. “In an environment where everybody is told, ‘Keep the cost down. Don’t tell me anything costs more.’ — it creates a culture out there for people to cook the books,” she said in a recent interview.

Who would’ve ever thought, after years of relentless cost-cutting in the halls of Washington, that the federal government actually spends our money on important stuff? Who would’ve thought that wars cost money, and tax cuts cost money, and maintaining our infrastructure costs money? Not the Republicans, that’s for sure. While the Bush administration plunged us into two wars and cut taxes on the rich, who were already taking a bigger piece of the pie than they had since the Roaring Twenties, Republicans in Congress were blocking every Democratic attempt to give the VA the funding they needed to give our veterans the medical care they were promised. And then, when the Obama administration tried to correct this funding crisis, Republicans responded by proposing deeper spending cuts.

Let this be a warning to every politician and every voter who thinks we can cut our way to prosperity: Those dollar figures represent real services that the government provides to real people. Every cut has a cost, and not just in money. In lives.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

The Fault Lies Not in the Stars But in Our Politicians

As I predicted on this page at the beginning of the year, the housing market has turned the corner.

The Zillow Home Value Index experienced the first year-over-year increase since 2007, the fourth consecutive month of increasing value. The Federal Housing Finance Agency also reported the fourth straight month of rising home prices in May.

At their current rate, new home sales are on track to beat last year’s numbers by 17 percent. Compared to a year earlier, the inventory of unsold existing homes has been declining for sixteen consecutive months. In fact, this month we saw the biggest drop in inventory ever reported.

Last month, housing starts reached their highest level since October 2008. This month, home builder confidence reached the highest level since March 2007. Foreclosures in distressed markets like California have reached their lowest level since 2007.

In other words, our long national nightmare is over.

And yet, our malaise has only deepened. Output growth is weak, unemployment remains stuck at 8.2 percent, and the twin engines of growth — exports and manufacturing — have stalled. If the cause of our discontent has reversed course, what fresh hell is holding us back?

Some of the blame belongs to the European Union, whose weakness has driven the euro down, making the U.S. dollar more expensive. As a result, exports have flatlined, along with the manufacturing sector that depends on them.

But the real sand in the wheels has been the cutbacks in Washington.

No, that’s not a typo. Despite all the news you’ve heard about the big bad budget deficit, the truth is that the government has been retreating, leaving the private sector to fend for itself.

In the two and a half years since the end of the recession, government spending, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by 2.6 percent. Government purchases have also fallen by 2.6 percent. Government employment has fallen by 2.7 percent.

Compare that to the two and a half years after the end of the 1982 recession, over which Ronald Reagan presided. By this point in Reagan’s term, government spending had increased by 10.2 percent, government purchases had increased by 11.6 percent, and government employment had increased by 3.1 percent.

Or we could compare to George W. Bush. From 2000 to 2007, government spending grew faster than it has from 2007 to 2011.

Any way you measure it, government spending growth has been very weak.

From 1980 to 1984, real government spending increased over 14 percent. From 2008 to 2012, in contrast, it has increased only 6 percent. And, since the beginning of last year, it has turned negative. In fact, this year, real government spending per capita is falling faster than it has since the aftermath of the Korean War.

But the real bloodbath is yet to come. On January 1st, $110 billion in automatic spending cuts are scheduled to kick in, followed by over $1 trillion more in spending cuts and tax increases over the next decade — unless, of course, Congress enacts a new law to postpone them.

Republicans are particularly concerned about this so-called “fiscal cliff,” not only because they abhor tax increases, but especially because half of the spending cuts will come from the Pentagon. Democrats are equally concerned about the possible extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, which are scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

So Democratic Senator Patty Murray made them an offer: We will agree to postpone the “fiscal cliff” if you will agree not to extend the Bush tax cuts for household incomes above $250,000.

Senate Democrats held up their end of the bargain on Wednesday, passing a bill to extend all the Bush tax cuts below $250,000. But Washington insiders say that the bill is as good as dead in the Republican-controlled House.

House Republicans, it seems, are determined to hold the economy hostage to the selfish interests of the rich — yet again.

But it doesn’t have to go down like this. Weak economic growth is not a fait accompli. The fundamentals of our economy are improving. The recovery will accelerate…if the government steps up like it did in previous recoveries.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.